Rediscovered Millipede Has a Leg Up on Competitors

Scientists are reporting the rediscovery of a millipede that had not been seen in some time. It has 750 legs. Despite the name, no known millipede actually has 1,000 legs. But this species comes closer than any.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Another evolutionary oddity is described in the current issue of the Journal of Nature. Scientists say they have rediscovered the leggiest animal on the plant. It's a millipede, but these animals don't actually have a thousand feet.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

Some kids simply love bugs and a few never grow out of it. Paul Marek admits he was hooked at the age of five. And as a graduate student at East Carolina University, one day he decided to track down the long lost king of millipedes, Illacme Plenipes, a creature known to have as many as 750 legs.

Mr. PAUL MAREK (Graduate Student, East Carolina University): It's a pretty cool species name when you think about it. It's Latin for the acme of plentiful feet.

HARRIS: Marek dug up a scientific paper about this creature published way back in 1928. It hadn't been seen since. The paper gave a general location in San Benito County, California.

Marek and his brother took maps and went hunting, and they found the first specimen within an hour of looking - exactly where, they won't say.

Mr. MAREK: A very interesting find. It was this extremely slender, thread-like, and about the length of your thumb.

HARRIS: Most people would probably not have given it a second look. But to a millipede taxonomist, this was a heady discovery indeed.

Mr. MAREK: I think I was pretty close to falling over, definitely. Near hyperventilating also.

HARRIS: His first task was to collect just a few choice specimens. That meant killing them.

Mr. MAREK: That's kind of a bummer. But it is - it would be pretty hard to keep this species alive.

HARRIS: Marek brought about a dozen samples back to the lab and looked at them under the microscope. The biggest, a female, had 666 legs. That's a lot. And it's not exactly clear why.

Usually, he says, they use legs for burrowing.

Mr. MAREK: But for this species, it almost seems like kind of an overkill.

HARRIS: Millipedes keep growing body segments as they age, and each body segment has four new legs. So someday perhaps a lucky taxonomist will actually come across a millipede that lives up to its name and has a thousand feet.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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